By Sudarsan Raghavan
CAIRO — The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are waging a deadly contest for territory, recruits and influence in Yemen that is dividing tribes and deepening instability in the Middle East’s poorest nation, according to tribal leaders, security officials and analysts.
Clashes are occurring regularly in central Al Bayda Province between Yemeni tribal forces aligned with the two extremist groups. Meanwhile, an online propaganda war of videos, images and even poems is taking place in social media forums and Internet chat rooms as both sides seek to gain more followers and sympathizers.
In recent weeks, the fighting has escalated. The Islamic State deployed suicide bombers, including a Somali national, against al-Qaeda positions, killing and injuring more than 10 fighters, including commanders. Al-Qaeda, in retaliation, attacked Islamic State bases, claiming to wrest six of them away.
Then, a tribal group affiliated with al-Qaeda did something unprecedented: It offered a $20,000 reward for the apprehension or death of the local Islamic State leader.
“The rivalry between Islamic State and al-Qa’ida in Yemen has developed into a full- blown blood feud,” Elisabeth Kendall, a Yemen expert at Oxford University, who closely monitors the tensions, said late last month.
Even as the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has collapsed, the group’s branches continue to wage war against governments and foes from West Africa to Southeast Asia, while its ideology continues to inspire violence.
In Yemen, the rivalry is birthing a new crop of radicals and sympathizers who could hinder efforts by the United States and its allies to clear Islamic militants from a strategic part of the world and threaten to keep Yemen in turmoil for years, said analysts and Yemeni tribal leaders and officials.
The feud is being driven more by parochial grievances and ambitions than a desire to attack the West, said analysts, highlighting the growing localization of Islamist militants groups.
“Each one is trying to defeat the other and to show its strength on the ground, to show that they are stronger than the other,” said Ahmed Fadhil Abu Suraima, a deputy governor of Al Bayda province, in a December interview.
The conflict between the Islamic State’s affiliate, known as ISIS-Y, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP as the Yemen branch is called, is one among many conflicts unraveling in this country that straddles vital oil shipping lanes.
The main war pits northern rebels known as Houthis against the internationally recognized Yemeni government backed by the United States and a coalition of regional powers led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The four-year conflict has deepened a humanitarian crisis considered by the United Nations as the world’s most severe, pushed the country to the brink of famine and displaced more than 3 million from their homes.
Opening new battlegrounds
AQAP has targeted the West several times, including a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 and to send parcel bombs to locations in the United States.
The Islamic State emerged after political chaos followed Yemen’s populist Arab Spring revolts in 2011. Today, the group numbers around a few hundred fighters and has waged a guerrilla insurgency in the south, dispatching suicide bombers against Yemeni government soldiers and officials.
The Trump administration has mounted a campaign of airstrikes against both groups. So far this year, there have been eight airstrikes, one targeting ISIS-Y and the rest against AQAP.
“Both AQAP and ISIS-Y have taken advantage of ungoverned spaces in Yemen to plot, direct and inspire terror attacks against the United States, its citizens and its allies around the world,” said Lt. Earl Brown, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s central command.
You can read the full article at The Washington Post here.